terrorism and the notion of order

Friday, March 19th, 2004

In the British Literature sequence we (me and those who come to class) talk a lot about the idea of order, as we do in other courses. Tennyson’s Idylls can be read as a narrative with this structure: chaos (the world is broken and fractious)–>order (Arthur draws those factions into a unified whole)–>chaos (Arthur dies, the world becomes incoherent).

Terrorism is an agent of disorder or emblematic of it. But can the response also lead to further discord? Here’s what Jeffrey Record has to say on the issue from a monograph entitled Bounding the Global War on Terrorism (pdf) published by the Strategic Studies Institute:

Of particular concern has been the conflation of al-Qaeda and Saddam Husseins Iraq as a single, undifferentiated terrorist threat. This was a strategic error of the first order because it ignored critical differences between the two in character, threat level, and susceptibility to U.S. deterrence and military action. The result has been an unnecessary preventive war of choice against a deterred Iraq that has created a new front in the Middle East for Islamic terrorism and diverted attention and resources away from securing the American homeland against further assault by an undeterrable al-Qaeda. The war against Iraq was not integral to the GWOT, but rather a detour from it.

Additionally, most of the GWOTs declared objectives, which include the destruction of al-Qaeda and other transnational terrorist organizations, the transformation of Iraq into a prosperous, stable democracy, the democratization of the rest of the autocratic Middle East, the eradication of terrorism as a means of irregular warfare, and the (forcible, if necessary) termination of WMD proliferation to real and potential enemies worldwide, are unrealistic and condemn the United States to a hopeless quest for absolute security. As such, the GWOTs goals are also politically, fiscally, and militarily unsustainable.

Record focuses on three aspects of the GWOT (Global War on Terrorism): our ability to ascertain the threat, “the scope and feasibility of its objectives,” and sustainability issues (2).

The language we use to “define” or objectify threat is interesting and significant in the sense that discourse is a guide to framing ideas and responses to them. There’s always a logic behind the attempt at coherent description and explanation. Record writes,

American political discourse over the past several decades has embraced war as a metaphor for dealing with all kinds of enemies, domestic and foreign. One cannot, it seems, be serious about dealing with this or that problem short of making war on it. Political administrations accordingly have declared war on poverty, illiteracy, crime, drugs–and now terrorism. Even political campaign headquarters have war rooms, and war is a term used increasingly to describe bitter partisan disputes on Capitol Hill. War is perhaps the most over-used metaphor in America.

The logic lives behind the word war and the context it assumes, depending on what war brings to mind–Clausewitz, Machiavelli, Herodotus, Sun Tzu. As the judge claims in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, War is God.

Traditionally, we know that war is about armies and battlefields, gas and blood, uniforms and medals, heavy metal, terror, and as Tim O’Brien would say, lots of walking or “humping.” It’s the thing that kings and states do. “Yet,” as Record would put it, “terrorist organizations do not field military forces as such and, in the case of al-Qaeda and its associated partners, are trans-state organizations that are pursuing nonterritorial ends. As such, and given their secretive, cellular, dispersed, and decentralized order of battle, they are not subject to conventional military destruction” (3). Through much of the first part of the monograph, Record details current administration rhetoric from documents such as the National Security Strategy and National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, concluding that the documents “conflate” the threat by equating terrorist organizations with rogue states. Record writes,

Unfortunately, stapling together rogue states and terrorist organizations with different agendas and threat levels to the United States as an undifferentiated threat obscures critical differences among rogues states, among terrorist organizations, and between rogue states and terrorist groups. One is reminded of the postulation of an international Communist monolith in the 1950s which blinded American policymakers to the infl uence and uniqueness of local circumstances and to key national, historical, and cultural differences and antagonisms within the Bloc. Communism was held to be a centrally directed international conspiracy; a Communist anywhere was a Communist everywhere, and all posed an equal threat to Americas security. A result of this inability to discriminate was disastrous U.S. military intervention in Vietnam against an enemy perceived to be little more than an extension of Kremlin designs in Southeast Asia and thus by definition completely lacking an historically comprehensible political agenda of its own.

One more quote may serve to lay a little more down about the order/chaos focus I’ve been trying to brick up here.

The chief problem with this GWOT goal, however, is that terrorism is not a proper noun. Like guerrilla warfare, it is a method of violence, a way of waging war. How do you defeat a technique, as opposed to a flesh-and-blood enemy? You can kill terrorists, infiltrate their organizations, shut down their sources of cash, wipe out their training bases, and attack their state sponsors, but how do you attack a method? A generic war on terrorism ‘ails to make the distinction between the differing objectives of those who practice terrorism and the context surrounding its use,’ observes Robert Worley. ‘Failing to make the necessary distinctions invites a single, homogenous policy and strategy.’ Again, one is reminded of the lack of threat discrimination that prompted U.S. intervention in the Vietnam War.

There’s much more to Record’s work than I can get into here, but the fundamental question continues to come up and will keep coming up as we grope for order: how to fight, how to think, and how to use language to understand.


2 responses to “terrorism and the notion of order”

  1. neha says:

    Sigh… Doesn’t this make you feel that Beowulf was justified?

  2. Beverly says:

    The Global War on Terrorism has no answers to objectives. The Israeli assassination of Sheik Ahmed Yassin has the media predicting many different outcomes from his death. From heightening attacks focused solely on Israeli people to revenge on Americans, many Palestine and people all over the world wonder where the revengeful anger will take place. Does one founder have so much power in terrorist repercussions? Definitely a confused state of war. The randomness of terrorism has only one core concept in which it is targeting and that is power.